Puss in Boots – one of the more popular pantos, and one that, indeed, is being shown at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry for the 2019-2020 season. It may well be a well-loved panto, but it can carry unexpected risks. In an 1863 performance in North Shields, a grocer was laughing at the act and uttered his last words of “what do you think of that?” before dropping down, “as if shot” at the feet of a local publican. 1
A cast can sell the show
It’s not normally as dramatic as that, however, but an old story can stay fresh with a strong cast, so said the Coventry Herald2 of 1914’s performances at the Prince of Wales’ Theatre, Birmingham. Featuring none other than Wilkie Bard it was a big hit. Star power, then, was as much a selling point over 100 years ago as it is today.
Now it must be noted that Wikipedia claims he introduced the tongue twister “she sells seashells by the seashore” based on a song he performed in Dick Whittington at Drury Lane in 1908. The Coventry Herald has this song (or a derivation thereof, “she sells seashells, I’m sure” it quotes) performed by a Tom Ashby (performing as “Dave Dorking”, and struggling through the show despite a cold ) at Coventry Opera House’s January 1908 performance of Puss in Boots.3 It begs the question who was first? I’m sure the answer’s out there, so let me know! I’d also love to know what 1908’s “topical wit” was!
Coventry Opera House
The Opera House was a regular Coventry venue for pantomime in the early 20th century. January 1902’s Puss in Boots4 ends with a harlequinade, apparently appealing to the younger parts of the audience. Being relegated to an epilogue at the end of a panto, the harlequinade was in terminal decline as an entertainment form by this point. Perhaps, therefore, it is significant that the article following the panto review extols the virtues of Edison’s Animated Pictures, where you could almost believe what you see to be real (although a real dog is still required behind the scenes for sound effects!) 1902 saw a similar panto structure in Leamington’s performance at the Theatre Royal – “there will be plenty to laugh at over the seemingly absurd antics of the clown”, claims the Leamington Courier.5
Technology of course helped keep a panto such as Puss in Boots contemporary. The Coventry Herald reports in 19196 that “the electric lights manipulated by Mr Ames added much to the appearance of the costumes of the performers.”
1859’s Coventry Herald and Observer7 describes in florid terms a performance of Puss in Boots. Using snatches of Latin in his report, and making reference to the crowd as “young England”, it’s obvious that the reviewer feels at odds with an audience who were loud, very loud, and prone to throwing orange peel to keep themselves entertained. It’s a raucous scene, where even the band were told to play louder, but the reviewer’s sanity is rescued, it seems, by the play itself. The start of this sees the audience seemingly stunned into silence.
Of note in the review is the stage setting being praised as a “work of art”. The reviewer also considers it unnecessary to give a plot rundown as everyone will know the story, we are told. The review concludes on an upbeat note, despite their earlier anguish:
[T]he elements of popularity abound in this Christmas piece, and we cannot doubt that for many nights to come it will draw houses quite as crowded as those to which it has, hitherto, been played.
The review and performance may have been written 160 years ago, many of the stylistic presentations of the story may have altered but, ultimately, what actually changes in 160 years?
1 Rugby Advertiser, Jan 10th 1863
2 Coventry Herald, Feb 20th and 21st, 1914
3 Coventry Herald, Jan 22nd, 1908
4 Midland Daily Telegraph, January 7th 1902
5 Leamington Courier, Jan 24th 1902
6 Coventry Herald, June 6th and 7th 1919 – rather a late (or early) date for a performance!
7 Coventry Herald and Observer, December 31st 1859